A Way of Meeting with Others

commonRoomOne of the more remarkable and attractive chapters in the Rule of St. Benedict is Chapter Two: “Summoning the Brothers [and Sisters] for Counsel.” Although Benedict was not so democratic as to have matters put up to a majority vote (as most modern monastic constitutions are), Benedict considered it essential that the abbot listen to all members of the community before making a decision. In my time as abbot of my community, I am profoundly grateful for the suggestions and cautions from my fellow monks on numerous occasions. Most writings on the Rule remind us that the first word is “Listen.” Much is made of the need to listen to God and to then to others, especially the superior, as a means of listening to God. Here, Benedict reminds the abbot to listen to the community. Given the toxic atmosphere of much debate in political and religious matters, I cannot stress enough to importance of listening as a first principle to healing the exchange of thoughts and opinions.

We can make it easier for others to listen to us by expressing ourselves in a way that makes it easier for them to listen. Benedict says that we will do this if we “express [our] opinions with all humility, and not presume to defend [our] own views obstinately.” If we take a moment to think about how hard it is to listen to a person who does the opposite of what Benedict enjoins here, we will see the importance of this admonition. More important, when we express our views humbly and without obstinacy, it is easier to be focused on the issue rather than our relationships with other people which, in the course of debate, tend to become more competitive than constructive. Benedict would have us discern the right thing to do, not strive to gain the most debating points.

Even more startling than the foregoing: Benedict says that the reason the whole community should be called together is because “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.” This is not an over-idealization of young people, but is a salutary reminder that the points of view of marginal people, which includes the young, may prove to be vital to a right discernment. Our tendency is to push those we consider marginal to the margins, usually while assuming that we are not marginal.

Issues such as gun control and immigration reform being debated right now are complicated and require careful thinking and expression that is most fruitfully done humbly with a heart that listens to ourselves, to others, and to God.

These ideas are developed at greater length in my book Tools for Peace.

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Kirkus Review for From Beyond to Here

9781475934588_COVER.inddI have just received an affirming review of From Beyond to Here from Kirkus. It starts out: “Marr’s collection comprises six short stories aimed at young readers interested in aliens and ghosts (which in turn comprises just about all young readers, one would imagine).” It goes on to say that I have “done a good job depicting the troubles and traumas that preteens and teenagers face and showing how they might be able to deal with life’s challenges.” At the end, it says that I “feel for kids who suffer the death of a sibling or the abandonment of divorce or just the general confusion of trying to grow up or of being afraid to grow up. There are morals to these stories, but they don’t hit the reader over the head. Marr is that wise and often witty uncle that every young person needs.” 

I would add for those of you interesting in mimetic theory that the story “Buyer of Hearts” is filled with mimetic issues in the junior high and the town beyond.  You can read this review in its entirety on the From Beyond to Here page. You can also read “The Ghost of Swiss Castle” as a sample of my writing. I hope this review encourages more readers to give my stories a try. For some comments on ghost stories in general see Chills and Salvation.

Strange Wedding

wineTableFeast1The Wedding at Cana of Galilee is a beautiful story of celebration. The only problem is the story makes no sense, perhaps because celebration is infinitely beyond sense.

Foremost among the oddities is the scarce presence of the groom and no mention of the bride. The effect of Jesus being at the center of the story and no bride mentioned has the effect of putting us into the position of the bride of Jesus as Isaiah said: “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (Is. 62:5)” The scarcity of wine (probably humanly created—Cana was a poor village—looks ahead to the scarcity of bread in the wilderness. Both times, Jesus counters scarcity with extravagant abundance.

The six stone jars are supposed to hold water for purification. That would be a lot of purity, but the jars are empty. Well, purity laws and rituals tend to divide humans arbitrarily into clean and unclean. That is, purity always creates a scarcity of purity, especially of pure people. Quite the opposite of God’s marriage with all God’s people.

The water with which the attendants fill the jars suggests baptism, as does the water at the well in Samaria, another story with nuptial overtones. The wine is a festive drink but it also looks toward Jesus’ death as does the bread in the wilderness. The story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple, the event that drove the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to plot the death of Jesus, further suggests that the water and wine refer to the Passion.

Dostoevsky makes powerful use of this story in Brothers Karamazov. The great staretz (spiritual father) Zossima has just died. When his corpse follows the normal course of nature and creates a stink, many of the people are scandalized, including Zossima’s youthful follower, Alyosha. Late at night, the stricken Alyosha  is praying in the hermitage where the body lies in state. Another monk is reading the story of the Marriage of Cana. The room expands to take in a vast celebration. Then Alyosha sees Zossima rejoicing. The elder says to him: “We are rejoicing . . . we are drinking new wine, the wine of great joy. See how many guests there are?” “He [Jesus] became like us out of love, and he is rejoicing with us, transforming water into wine, that the joy of the guests may not end. He is waiting for new guests, he is ceaselessly calling new guests.”

Cana was a backwater in a backwater, a place of no significance. The temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religion and culture. As with the outcasts at the manger, the party is in the backwater, not the center. In this new center, Jesus calls all of us to the party, the party that transforms the body and blood of Jesus into bread and wine of feasting and rejoicing, a party open to all of us. . Jesus has indeed saved the best wine until last.

See blog posts Humanly Created Scarcity, Divinely Created Abundance, and Outcasts at the Manger and article Violence and the Kingdom of God for more comments on Brothers Karamazov.

Arachne, Athena, and a Thousand Princes

Xenia1Imagine a world where competitiveness is that world’s foundation, where it is nothing but mimetic rivalry all the way down. (See my post Human See, Human Want.) Actually many people have, but I am going to focus on a couple of recent fantasy novels I’ve just read which do that.

The Mark of Athena is the latest volume in Richard Riordan’s second series about adolescent demigods, Heroes of Olympus. These books can be a fun way to learn about Greek and Roman mythology, but if ever these gods are real and they really (mis)rule the universe, we’re in trouble. The positions of Zeus and the other Olympians, for example, are the result of earlier conflict. In Riordan’s novels, Cronos and Gaia make comebacks that fuel the divine in-fighting.

This latest book Riordan makes the millennia-old resentments come alive in their tense paralysis. Arachne who offended Athena by weaving a better tapestry than Athena could. Arachne is imprisoned under Rome as a giant spider with a monstrously bad attitude. Beth, a daughter of Athena, has to take from Arachne the Athena Parthenos that was stolen by the Romans and restore it to the Olympians. We see frozen resentments such as Arachne’s in human experience all the time. What if God really were like Athena instead of a God who generously brings us into being and even more generously saves us from follies such as that of Athena and Arachne?

The other books is A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix. Prince Khemri is one of countless youths raised in privileged but inhuman conditions to serve the inter-galactic empire as a prince. Each prince is connected to the imperial mind upon coming of age (if he or she is not assassinated first) and is plunged into a system fueled by rivalry and nothing but rivalry. Material goods and programed courtesans are furnished in abundance so there is nothing to fight over except power and position. Nix does a superb job of showing us what such a system looks like, a system that is totally sacrificial. Khemri is singled out for a unique assignment that forces him to live with normal human beings. He is quite bewildered when he finds himself instinctively defending a woman when all his training taught him to use a human as a shield for himself. Is it a shock to us if ever we discover something in the world that isn’t rivalry all the way down, but is grounded instead in love that reaches out to others?

See Baptizing the Imagination for an essay on religious aspects of fantasy literature. See Violence and the Kingdom of God for more about mimetic rivalry and religion.

Outcasts at the Manger

altarXmasStar1We like to be insiders and hate to be outsiders, don’t we? Well, let’s look at some insiders and outsiders in the Christmas story. The people who stayed at the inn in Bethlehem were insiders. A betrothed couple and their newborn baby were outsiders. Shepherds were outsiders, hated and distrusted by all. So why would the angel of the Lord show such bad taste in revealing the birth of the Savior to them?

The Magi were highly-placed insiders in their own country, most likely top advisors of royalty. So why would they travel to another land where they were outsiders? If the star was up there for all to see, why did these foreigners from without and outcasts from within Jewish society respond when others did not?

The Magi, used to being insiders, went straight to the top, to the ultimate insider, King Herod, to inquire about which newborn child the star was indicating. Ironically, Herod was an Idumean, not a full-blooded Jew. He had power, but he was an outsider. Herod’s reaction to the Magi’s inquiry showed Herod to be an outsider to humanitarian feelings once he thought his power was threatened. Mixed racial background aside, being rich and powerful pushes one to the margins of society as much as the poverty of the despised shepherds.

These days, we easily see Herod as an outsider, an intrusive foreign element entering the story only to stir up trouble and grief. The shepherds and the Magi are insiders, like us. How did that happen?

There is a certain sleight of hand that turns us and certain chosen others into insiders when it suits us. Not only do we not wish to be outsiders, we don’t like to be challenged by outsiders. If we realize that the shepherds and Magi and the Holy Family themselves are outsiders, our identities are shaken at a deep level. If it is outsiders who appreciated the richness of the Christ Child, maybe the same thing happens today. After all, some nonbelievers care more about the poor than rich Christians and a Hindu early in the twentieth century believed in the Sermon on the Mount more than the Christians of his time.

The greatest irony is that Christ was born to save all people, to make insiders of all of us. The problem is, we don’t want to be insiders with those who are outsiders and we certainly don’t want outsiders to join us. After all, what would we do if there were no outsiders?